Local Longest Night event commemorates houseless struggle
Last updated 12/14/2021 at Noon
The Longest Night is a national event memorializing the lives of people who died due to conditions of houselessness. During the Winter Solstice Labyrinth Walk on December 21, local advocate Mandee Seeley will undertake a labyrinth walk to commemorate folks who have died while unhoused in Sisters Country over the last several years.
In 2020, when the annual solstice walk was canceled due to COVID-19, Seeley had the idea of connecting the large national memorial with a labyrinth walk in Sisters.
“For me, the labyrinth is a place to be and reflect on things, and it seems like the perfect location to do that,” said Seeley.
Sisters residents and visitors are invited to join her in this commemoration. (See related story, page 3.)
“I think it’s really important that on a national level people get together and remember these folks,” Seeley said. “A lot of the times, they are the forgotten. So being a part of this feels like being part of something bigger.”
This year marks the 31st anniversary of the first “Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day” begun by the National Coalition for the Homeless, according to organizers. There will be an outdoor vigil on December 21 at 4:30 p.m. at Pioneer Park in Bend,
“To date, we have collected the names of 14 individuals who died this year while living houseless” in Central Oregon, they wrote in a press release. Sources did not place any of these individuals in the Sisters area.
According to Seeley, some residents of Sisters Country have misconceptions about people in the area who are houseless.
“A lot of people feel like folks are out here by choice,” she said, “that it’s a lifestyle that people would choose, forgetting that it also kills people.”
As of September, approximately 110 people were counted living in the national forest, in vehicles, trailers, tents, and the like. Ian Reid, Sisters District Ranger for the U.S. Forest Service, said that “the breakdown is pretty consistent with what our social scientists find about non-recreational camping on the national forests” in general.
He defined three main groups: “Those who are employed, either part-time or full-time in town, in Sisters. Then there’s a group who have drug and/or alcohol and/or mental health issues. Then there’s a group who’s just kind of boondocking, may be retired, may have money, are moving around, don’t have a residence.”
Boondocking is a term to describe living off the grid (without electricity or water hookups), usually in a recreational vehicle but sometimes in a tent.
He acknowledged that these three groups are loosely defined, and there is crossover between them.
“It’s subsistence,” Reid said of non-recreational long-term camping, which breaks the Forest Service’s rules about how long people are normally allowed to camp. In most cases, “it’s people trying to have their basic needs met, who have nowhere else to go.”
Said Reid of conditions leading to long-term campers living houseless on the national forest, “It’s a large societal issue.” He praised the City of Sisters for working to get more affordable housing built, and Deschutes County and nonprofit groups for their outreach programs.
“They’re doing awesome work getting out to those camps, getting those folks out to services,” said Reid.
Seeley and her family were unhoused, living in the woods around Sisters for many months. Seeley said, “It’s hard. It’s isolating. It’s depressing. It’s not a life that anyone should have to experience.”
Due to a national housing crisis and the acute housing squeeze in Central Oregon, more and more people are living without typical housing. A federal review by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found that as of January 2020, for every 10,000 residents in Oregon, 35 people experienced homelessness. Only three states had worse rates: New York, Hawaii, and California.
Oregon placed in the top three for highest rates of unhoused people living unsheltered in the outdoors, at 61 percent. The other two states, Nevada and California, also contain large swaths of public land.
“For me, I can’t see anybody choosing to be out there unless they didn’t have any other options,” Seeley said.
Those interested in helping can do so in three ways. “Get involved by volunteering, educate yourself on the struggles, and donate money to the cause,” Seeley recommended.
Seeley’s walk to commemorate lives lost will take place as part of the annual Winter Solstice Labyrinth Walk at 6 p.m. on Tuesday, December 21, at Sisters Community Labyrinth.
More information about The Longest Night is available at NationalHomeless.org. For a local perspective or to find help, visit COHomeless.org or call 541-630-2533.
The local cold weather shelter for Sisters is on Facebook at facebook.com/sisterscoldweathershelter, or can be reached by phone at 541-633-6114.
NeighborImpact offers many services, including resources for those who are worried they might lose their current housing; see http://www.neighborimpact.org.
Sisters Habitat for Humanity builds new affordable housing and helps people achieve homeownership; find more information at http://www.sistershabitat.org.